Hoover Daily Report

It's about Time

Monday, May 22, 2000

How would you like to see all children—rich and poor, in cities, suburbs, and rural areas—learn more than ever before? Sound good? Then how do you feel about kids going to school an extra four weeks a year?

For at least a generation now, we have been debating how to improve our country's schools. Yet we've barely discussed the one idea that may make the most sense: more time in school.

It is widely agreed that what students in past generations learned will not be sufficient for today's students or the future of our country. Thus, schools are asking students to meet higher standards in every subject area and to use the knowledge they acquire, not just remember it. The problem is that schools are asking students to meet these new standards in exactly the same time they were given to meet the standards of the past! But learning takes time.

The best time is during the two weeks at either end of the summer. Under this plan, the school year would run from roughly August 15 to June 30, making it 200 days instead of the current American norm of 180. Summer vacation would last six weeks instead of ten.

The benefits of such a change could be enormous. First, students forget some of what they learned during the school year, forcing teachers to spend part of each new school year on review rather than on new material. Second, economically disadvantaged students forget much more each summer than other students—perhaps three times as much. This difference in learning, which accumulates summer after summer, helps explain the wide achievement gap that separates inner-city high school students from students in the suburbs. A shorter summer might reduce the achievement gap and raise the standards of all students, including those at the top.

Parents are unenthusiastic. But a six-week summer break is ample time for most family vacations, for camp, sports, and other forms of learning, or for older children to earn some necessary income.

Of course, there is always the matter of cost. A longer year requires a possible 10 percent increase in operating costs. Yet we have increased what we spend on education by much more than that over the past generation. And what do we have to show for it? Less than we might expect from an investment in more time.

Parents and students in Edison Schools, run by a private company that helps public school systems set up state-of-the-art schools, have been willing to give part of every summer over to schooling, squeezing the extra cost out of existing education budgets. And achievement growth has been strong for all students. Since Edison began operating schools five years ago, thirty-six communities in sixteen states have embraced the longer school year and worked with Edison to implement it in nearly eighty schools. Stretching the school year into the summer is not only sensible but also possible.